BROOKSVILLE - County Commissioner Nick Nicholson said it happens every year about this time, when the Hernando County Fair draws near.
He said there seems to be an effort by disgruntled people to discredit the fair association board and cast a cloud on the annual event.
This year, Nicholson said, someone - he doesn't know who, he said - is alleging mishandled finances. This year, he said, the behind-the-scenes manipulation prompted the Hernando County Sheriff's Office to launch an investigation.
"I think there is a concerted effort by people not happy with certain things or who ran for election (on the fair board of directors) and didn't get on the fair board and want to see it attacked," Nicholson said.
The commissioner called the sheriff's investigation "smoke and mirrors" and said he is confident the fair association board will be cleared of any alleged wrongdoing.
"Unfortunately, every year somebody wants to say something about the fair right before it," he said. "Personally, I think we need to be supporting the fair and other events such as the Blueberry Festival and any other events and help them be responsible and get good publicity."
Such events, including Brooksville's annual Art in the Park show, bring crowds to Hernando County and are good tourism generators, he said.
"We have a lot of good things going on in the county and we need to support them, Nicholson said.
Last week, the sheriff's office launched an investigation into the Hernando County Fair Association's finances after county commissioners at their business meeting said they had reservations about giving the fair board money to help with this year's 63rd event, which takes place April 4 through 12.
The county asked for a clear financial report from the fair board, including an accounting of how its money is spent.
Sheriff's spokeswoman Denise Moloney said Friday the investigation is active and could not provide any information.
"No specific crime or person is being targeted at this time," Moloney wrote in an email. "There is enough 'reasonable suspicion' to justify further investigation to determine if in fact a crime has occurred and if so by whom."
Fair Association spokeswoman Sandra Nicholson said Friday the board has turned in all financial records to the sheriff's office and will cooperate with the investigation.
"We have nothing to hide," Sandra Nicholson said.
She said it is a shame matters have come to this point and blames it on ill will from some people in the community. She acknowledged mistakes have been made and that better records could be kept.
"We're volunteers," Sandra Nicholson said. "Can things be made better? Of course."
She said the board provides the county with an annual financial statement but would welcome an in-depth financial review.
"We're a not-for-profit organization," she said. "We put whatever monies we get back into infrastructure for beautification and improvements."
The investigation and attack on the board, Sandra Nicholson said, is distracting volunteers from doing their job, which is putting on this year's fair.
"It's not only taking our time, but it's giving people a negative feel about what should be a positive in Hernando County," she said.
County Commissioner Dave Russell said the commission likely will wait until the sheriff's investigation is completed before deciding on any course of action.
"If we need further investigation, that's something the county administrator can look at, or perhaps the clerk of the court," Russell said.
In 2011, the county commission granted the Hernando County Fair Association a special deed for the fair property and directed it to continue with the annual fair and to make improvements.
The association board pays the county annual rent of $10. But that lease agreement comes with stipulations. For example, county personnel periodically may inspect the fairgrounds to ensure safety and health guidelines are met.
The Fair Association must cooperate with the county in the event of any investigation, audit or inquiry launched by the county or any governmental agency regarding possible violation of any environmental law or regulation on the premises.
The association must keep the grounds maintained and safe.
There also is a memorandum of agreement between the Fair Association and Hernando County that states the fairgrounds property will revert back to the county if no county fair is held for three consecutive years.
Pat Crowley, president of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, said the annual fair attracts visitors who patronize merchants along the U.S. 41 corridor, especially in Brooksville.
The fair also showcases Hernando County, she said.
"Not having a fair is going to hurt tourism in Brooksville," Crowley said. "We need to support it as a community."